Japan’s Open-Air Folk Museum: Nihon Minka-En

When traveling in Japan, I like to get off the beaten path. This is partly due to my need to visit historical sites that feature in my Hiro Hattori mystery novels and partly due to my love of the unique and unusual.

Saduka House

This morning, I visited a site that will doubtless feature fairly heavily here on the blog in the weeks to come: an open-air folk museum south of Tokyo, called Nihon Minka-En(The name translates to “Japan Folk Museum”)

The museum is located in Ikuta Ryokuchi Park in Kawasaki (Kanagawa Prefecture), Japan, and consists of more than two dozen houses and other structures–including a Shintō shrine and a functioning water wheel and mill–that have been relocated from their original locations and preserved in rural, village-like settings.

Gassho House

This Gassho-style house was relocated from the mountains near Gifu province (northwest of Tokyo), and is one of three such houses on the grounds. It once belonged to a paper-making family, and the racks and other tools for making traditional Japanese paper are on display inside the house. 

Most of the buildings date from the 17th century, and all are furnished with the tools and possessions appropriate to their former owners’ status and daily lives. Some of the furnishings are original, and some are reproductions, but they combine to give a realistic feeling for life in 16th-19th century Japan.

In some cases, very realistic:

Japanese latrine

Visitors can enter the houses and walk around, making the museum a highly interactive experience. Volunteer docents around the grounds are eager to answer questions (and many of them speak excellent English, for visitors who can’t speak Japanese). All of the signs, and the houses’ histories, are also written in Japanese and English, making the museum highly accessible for visitors with limited (or no) Japanese ability.

Irori fire

From 11am-2pm daily, docents light fires in the irori (hearth) of several houses, and visitors are invited to join the volunteers by the fire, to experience what life was like in a Japanese home of this era. The ambience isn’t the real reason they light the fires, however–the smoke helps keep the house dry inside, assisting with preservation, and also kills insects that might otherwise cause damage to the roof thatch.

Living history, indeed.

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A Visit to Tokyo’s “Book Street” – Jinbocho

Jinbocho (sometimes also romanized “Jimbocho”) is Tokyo’s used-book and publishing center, which lies in Chiyoda Ward (aka Chiyoda City). Named after a 17th century samurai, Nagaharu Jinbō, Jinbocho covers several city blocks, all of which are lined with shops selling a variety of used, rare and out-of print books. 

Jimbocho Bookstore

Bookcases overflowing with volumes fill the shops from floor to ceiling, in rows that resemble narrow library stacks–if library stacks reached twenty feet in the air.

Jimbocho Books

Some of the shops carry Western books as well as Japanese ones. The awning over this shop reads “First Floor: Japanese Books. Second Floor: Western Books.”

Jimbocho Bookstore (1)

Coffee shops and restaurants wedged between the bookstores offer a place for shoppers to rest and replenish before returning to browsing the shops in search of readable treasures. For bibliophiles, Jinbocho is a fabulous place to spend an afternoon (and, likely, a few of your yen as well.)

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Hello, Tokyo!

This afternoon, my son and I arrived in Tokyo for a three-week research trip and celebration (my son graduated from university this week, with a degree in Japanese language). First stop, the hotel in Shinjuku:

Shinjuku from Hundred Stay

and shortly thereafter, dinner at Lotteria!

Lotteria Meal (1)

(Some people might find it ironic that my first meal in Japan was not “Japanese food” – but I counter that with the fact that Lotteria is a Japanese burger chain and, therefore, qualifies as Japanese food.)

After dinner, we made a quick stop at a convenience store for Japanese coffee-in-a-can, which I love and miss when I’m not here.

0606 Coffee in a Can

(If you haven’t tried it, you may find it difficult to believe that coffee in a can is any good. Let me assure you, it’s delicious.)

No research sites or points of interest on today’s agenda, because our flight didn’t land until almost 4pm. That said, I’m off to sleep because we have a full day planned for tomorrow!

What’s your favorite thing to do when you arrive in a much-loved foreign place?  

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You Always Win at Lotteria

Japan has McDonald’s and Burger King in every major city, making fast-food burgers and fries an easy thing to find, even halfway across the world from home. But if you’re looking for the best fast-food burger experience in Japan, bypass the golden arches in favor of Japan’s own Lotteria.

Lotteria (1)

The Lotteria menu will look familiar to any fast-food fan. It features several burgers (including one that’s meat-cheese-and-bun, for those who like a burger plain, in addition to offerings with the “standard” condiments and veggies). Fries, chicken nuggets, sodas, and shakes are also easy to find on the picture-filled menu.

The small, plain burger is my favorite. It may not look like much (as the photo below attests) but it’s absolutely delicious.

Lotteria Burger (1)

The patty is thick and juicy, the cheese is melted perfectly, and the burger has just the right amount of salt and–surprise!–pepper too! Seasoning is something few American fast food chains pay much attention to (aside from salt) and the burger at Lotteria is evidence of how fantastic even a simple patty can be when it’s properly seasoned.

Lotteria’s fries will please any french-fry lover. They’re crispy, hot, and salty in exactly the right proportions:

Lotteria Meal (1)

You can find Lotteria in just about any major Japanese city. Many of the dining areas in major train stations have them, too–I’ve eaten at the ones in Tokyo Station, Kyoto Station (look for it underground, in the dining and shopping mall adjacent to the station) and in one of the major underground stations in the Osaka area.

An added bonus for Western travelers: Lotteria’s most popular menu items (and meal sets) are displayed (with photos) on placemat-style plastic menus that sit beside the register, so ordering requires no Japanese. Pointing to the meal you want will get you fed, regardless of your linguistic ability (or lack thereof).

That said, if you can manage onegaishimasu (please), good manners are always in style.

If you like fast food (or you’re traveling with kids who do) take a chance on Lotteria. From a fast-food dining perspective, it’s a winner every time. 



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Mizugumo and Mizukaki – the Ninja’s “Mud Sandals”

Real ninjas (also known as “shinobi”) used a variety of special tools, many of which were useful when the ninja needed to infiltrate a castle or other fortified area–either for purposes of assassination or for other acts of espionage.

When crossing swampy castle moats or weed-filled rivers, ninjas often used mizugumo or mizukaki – two different but similar types of shoes designed to help traverse an overgrown or marshy waterway.

The larger mizugumo operate on a principle similar to snowshoes.


The wooden rings around the inner “shoe” spreads out the wearer’s weight, enabling the ninja to cross swampy areas without sinking. 

Ninja on Mizugumo

Unfortunately, mizugumo are fairly large and difficult to conceal. For this reason, ninjas also developed the smaller mizukaki:


While not as effective at distributing the wearer’s weight, and thus useful only on heavily overgrown areas (or marshes where the problem was avoiding getting stuck in mud, as opposed to crossing water), a ninja could hide mizukaki in a tunic or small pack, making them a useful tool that was also easily concealed. 

I took these photographs at the Iga Ninja Museum in Iga, Japan–the historical home of the Iga ryu, one of Japan’s most famous ninja clans–while researching my upcoming Hiro Hattori mystery, Betrayal at Iga. In the novel, which releases July 11, 2017, Hiro and Father Mateo visit Hiro’s home in Iga. When a member of the rival Koga ryu is murdered during peace negotiations between the clans, Hiro and Father Mateo must catch the killer in time to prevent a ninja war. 

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to work either mizugumo or mizukaki into this particular novel, but I’m looking forward to letting Hiro use them in a future book!

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The Joy of Japanese Vending Machines

Japanese vending machines have a worldwide, and well-deserved, reputation.

You can find jidohanbaiki (vending machines) in every train and bus station, hotel, and public area, as well as on many (if not most) streets in cities of any significant size. Most stock drinks:

Vending Machine

But many sell food, though food and drinks are rarely found in the same machines. Normally, a machine offers one or the other.

The strangest thing I’ve seen in a vending machine is cheese sticks:

vending machine cheese

(These were in a vending machine on the platform at Gifu Station. The machine also offered various fresh-packaged pastries.)

Unlike U.S. vending machines, which typically sell only cold beverages, machines in Japan will typically offer both hot and cold drinks (from the same machine). Hot beverage choices normally have red backing behind the price information:

Corn soup in vending machine - Version 2

And yes, the offering on the right really is corn soup. (The one in the center is cocoa, and the one on the left is one of Japan’s many brands of coffee.)

As you can see in the larger vending machine photo above, the price backing on cold beverages is customarily blue (denoting cold).

Unlike coffee vending machines in the USA, which normally dispense coffee directly into a styrofoam or paper cup, the coffee dispensed from jidohanbaiki–whether hot or cold–is packaged in sealed cans, some with soda-like pull tabs and others with resealable screw-off caps like a water bottle.

Wonda Cafe au Lait

People often ask me if Japanese vending-machine coffee is any good. I love good coffee, and drink a lot, and in my opinion Japanese vending-machine coffee is excellent. Despite being pre-packaged, and canned or bottled, it rivals most fresh-brewed coffee you’ll find in the United States, and the vending machines really do dispense it HOT.

More on Japanese coffee another time…but if you find yourself in Japan, be sure to buy at least one drink from a vending machine, and let me know what you think about it too!

Have you ever bought drinks from Japanese vending machines? Leave a comment and let me know!

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Visiting Gifu Castle

During last autumn’s research trip to Japan, I spent the night in Gifu (city and province), which lies northeast of Kyoto and near the southernmost end of the Japan Alps.


(The characters on the post read “Gifu”)

I arrived at Gifu Station in the afternoon, with just enough time to visit the castle before it closed at sunset. I’d been looking forward to the trip, because during the later part of the 16th century, Gifu–and Gifu Castle in particular–was the mountain stronghold of Oda Nobunaga, a Japanese Daimyo (feudal lord) who also appears as a character in my Hiro Hattori / Shinobi Mystery novels.

The castle sits on a hill overlooking Gifu Park, a 15 minute bus ride from Gifu Station:

Gifu Castle The castle is that tiny white building on the crest of the hill, near center frame.

Although you can hike up to the castle, I didn’t arrive in time to make the hike, so I opted to ride the ropeway (a car suspended from an overhead cable). Like many ropeways in Japan, the one in Gifu has lovely tickets:

 Kinkazan Ropeway Ticket

They even have a walking map of the castle area on the back:

Walking Course at Gifu Castle

The ropeway ride takes about five minutes. From the top, it’s another 15 minute walk to the castle — most of it uphill, and most of that up flights of stairs. The path to the castle follows the old approach that switchbacks up the hill, an easily defensible path that Oda Nobunaga no doubt used to great advantage.

Path to Gifu Castle (1)

The castle itself comes into view a couple of minutes after you leave the ropeway:

Gifu Castle (2)

Though it’s clear from that first glimpse how far you still need to walk to get inside!

Signs along the way describe the history of Gifu Castle and the feudal lords who controlled it. They’re written in English as well as Japanese, making Gifu Castle an interesting site for Western tourists. (Many Japanese historical sites have signage in Japanese only, so unless you read the language, you need to do your research before you go.)

There’s also a lovely reproduction of a painting showing Gifu Castle in its heyday, during the 16th century:

Painting of Gifu Castle

While walking, visitors can enjoy lovely views of Gifu City, spread out below the castle hill:

Gifu From Ropeway

And, of course, the castle itself, which remains in sight for most of the walk.

Gifu Castle (4)

Like many Japanese historical sites, admission to the castle is very reasonably priced (300 yen, about $3, which also includes admission to the secondary castle museum nearby). Inside the castle, visitors can view a number of exhibits, including swords, armor, and even early firearms (some from the 16th century, and others which are reproductions of period arms and armor). You can also walk out onto the balcony that encircles the upper level of the castle, which has spectacular views of Gifu:

View South from Gifu Castle (1)

I left the castle just in time to catch the sunset from the ropeway as I descended. 

Historically, Gifu is an important province, in part because it served as Oda Nobunaga’s base of operations during the later half of the 16th century. I was glad I took the time to visit – and I’ll share more photos from inside the castle in future posts.

Have you ever visited Gifu? Or any Japanese Castle?

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A Visit to Ryuanji (Osaka, Japan)

Ryuanji is a Buddhist temple located in Minō Park, just north of Osaka.

Ryuanji Entrance (1)

The temple itself lies about a 25 minute walk from the park entrance, on the path that leads to Minō Falls (one of Japan’s most beautiful waterfalls, and the reason many people visit Minō Park).

Ryuanji Bridge

Originally founded in 650 by an ascetic monk named En no Gyoja, Ryuanji is also the home to one of the oldest statues of Benzaiten (the goddess of music, fortune, and knowledge) in Japan. Although originally known as Minō-dera, the temple is now known as Ryuanji. It has been a functioning Buddhist temple continually since the 7th century.

Ryuanji and bridge.

Although I didn’t have the chance to see the Benzaiten statue the day I visited, I did spend time on the temple grounds, appreciating the architecture and the exterior statues, including this lantern (toro):

Ryuanji Lantern

Which features a dragon and three familiar monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil) carved in relief around its base:

Ryuanji Lantern Base

I also appreciated the lichen-encrusted guardians watching over the temple entrance:

Ryuanji Guardian (Left)

Like many temple guardians in Japan, they were simultaneously familiar and unique:

Ryuanji Guardian (Right)

Although the temple is fairly small compared with some of the enormous precincts in Japan’s major cities, Ryuanji is a lovely, quiet place to rest and meditate, and I’ll definitely visit again, the next time I’m in the Osaka area.

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A Visit to One of Japan’s Most Spectacular Waterfalls

Minō Park, North of Osaka, is home to one of Japan’s most spectacular waterfalls – the 33-meter (99′) Minō Falls:

Lamp Post Near Mino Falls

The falls are the park’s most famous attraction, though it’s also known as one of the best places in the Kansai Region for viewing colorful autumn foliage (momijigari). Even the manhole covers in the park demonstrate the area’s pride in its autumn leaves:

Mino Manhole

Visitors reach the falls by hiking a paved 4km trail from the park entrance. The path terminates at the falls, and takes about 45-60 minutes to walk, depending on walking speed and physical fitness. (The walk is paved the entire way, and mostly flat, so it’s suitable for walkers of all ages.) 

The paved path parallels the Minogawa (Mino River) through a beautiful forest of massive trees.

Mino Park walk (2)

A line of small restaurants near the falls provide visitors a place to stop for ice cream, snacks, or even a meal–the menu offerings include ramen, udon, and sandwiches.

Shops Near Mino Falls

The falls themselves are spectacular, and well worth the walk. (Though truthfully, the walk itself is worth a visit to Mino Park – it’s peaceful and beautiful in and of itself.)

Mino Falls

The viewing platform in front of the falls has over a dozen benches where visitors can rest and relax while watching the waterfall or enjoying a snack from the nearby restaurants. Although the platform can get crowded at certain times of day, if you visit early in the morning, seats are easy to find.

Mino Falls Closeup (Rainbow)

A gentle spray comes off the falls, creating rainbows like the one in the photograph above.

You can tell you’ve almost reached the waterfall when you see the restaurants:

Approaching Mino Falls

People sometimes bring their dogs to walk in the park – and they seem to enjoy the spray from the falls as much as people do:

Mino Park Dog

Minō Park doesn’t show up in many guidebooks or tourist websites. During my visit, most of the visitors to the park were Japanese. This might be due to an actual-or-perceived belief that foreigners care more about historical sites involving castles, temples, or other activities than sites involving scenic beauty, but if you like a nice walk in the woods (especially during foliage season) I definitely recommend Minō Park.


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Ninja News!

The national reviews for Betrayal at Iga have started coming in, and they’re great!

Publisher’s Weekly says: ““Spann keeps getting better, as shown by her fifth novel set in 16th-century Japan, a taut closed-circle mystery with perilous consequences…. Fans of classic whodunits will be pleased.”

The novel releases July 11 in paperback and ebook formats, and I’ve scheduled the first Sacramento-area signings:

- On July 14, I’ll be reading and signing at Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills from 6:30 until 8pm

- On July 22, I’ll be signing from 1pm-2pm at Barnes & Noble Birdcage Center in Citrus Heights from 1pm to 2pm.

If you live in the Sacramento area, I hope you’ll stop by and say hello!

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